A Rational Response To Shashi Tharoor.
Shashi Tharoor, one of the diplomats in contention last year for the position of U.N. Secretary General, recently wrote a series of articles in the Times of India and The Huffington Post, criticizing the Hindu extremists in India who violently protested the conversion of poor and disenfranchised Hindus to Christianity. These three articles (1,2,3) by Tharoor echoed the standard liberal-Hindu positions on religious tolerance – popular ideals among Indian intellectuals. Here is my response to Shashi Tharoor.
Let me start by briefly describing Tharoor’s arguments.
The Three Articles:
The entire first article was a reaction to the recent spate of violence in Orissa between Hindus and Christians. Tharoor blames the politicians and other profiteers from violence who use the “politics of division” to their benefit and admonishes the extremists as not acting as Hindus.
The second article is mostly a response to the public reaction to his first article, and is in itself more rational yet objectionable, nonetheless. He defends individual freedoms while displaying his laissez-faire leanings by hinting at the idea that the spiritual lives of India’s poor should be for sale to the denomination with the highest bid – a sort of free-market evangelism.
In his third article, Tharoor is peddling the neo-Hindu intellectual’s version of Hinduism as an all encompassing religion that has the principles of tolerance built into it. This has a lot of truth to it and I am partial to Hinduism, in spite (or because) of my childhood indoctrination as a Protestant Christian, but there are many things that are wrong with Tharoor’s understanding of, and therefore predictions about, the religious situation in India. I will address these now.
I would like to first state unequivocally that I condemn the violence perpetrated against the Christian evangelicals in Orissa. Unless the individuals are being forcefully coerced against their desires to convert to Christianity, the law should protect these individuals as well as the missionaries, and prosecute those Hindus or Christians who resort to violence and intimidation. That having said, the rest of this article will focus my criticism on Shashi Tharoor’s influential opinions.
Tharoor’s approach, which comes through in his three articles, applies a popular postmodernist take on epistemology that has become so common in India these days. Tharoor believes that the case in question must be viewed through the lens of religious qualification, and in particular, some ideal standard of Indian religious qualification. There is no objective reality to this view.
Let us take a more scientific view of the situation. Consider inter-religious conflict in general. This is a subset of inter-group conflict, something that biology can provide some insight into. This type of behavior is common in all social animals, where increased inter-group competitiveness displayed by one group increases the fitness of that particular group. Because of the importance of culture in organizing human societies, we have evolved group-centric emotions that demand us to fight for and protect our cultures and beliefs.
“Whether one looks at religious warriors, members of fascist or communist groups, or modern members of street-gangs, one finds the same pattern. The group is regarded as above reproach. The members of the group may sometimes think rather poorly of one another but the group as a whole is seen as supremely good….natural selection has shaped human nature to need to belong to groups. One factor that seems especially to intensify the need is competition with other groups…..This tendency towards inter-group competition fits well with what we have already seen. The words “Devil” and “Satan” are derived from the words meaning “adversary” or “opponent”, which fits the view that rivalry or antagonism is central to the basic, original understanding of evil. Evil is located in the group that opposes one’s group. The survival of one’s own group is seen as the ultimate good and it may require violent acts against the enemy group.”
The authors then go on to talk about the “discontinuity effect” wherein the behavior of a group tends to be more extreme than the sum of its individual members. This effect can be observed in all the communal conflicts in India.
Hinduism being polytheistic is often accepting of other faiths as containing some other form of “higher truth”. This kind of postmodernism is built into the modern intellectual consensus on Hinduism. However, what led to this tolerance that Hinduism is known for is the fact that so many devotees of so many Gods had to co-exist with each other for centuries, living in close proximity and being influenced by each other’s fervor. It is conceivable (although I have no factual knowledge of this) that devotees of one Hindu Deity may have fought with those of others, before Islam became a common foe because of its relative “out-group” status. Increase in intra-group co-operation (co-operation between members of a group) in the face of inter-group competition (competition between separate groups) has been well established. Puurtinen and Mappes in their research paper write:
“Although competition between groups is generally regarded as the ultimate selective force favoring costly within-group cooperation among non-related individuals, it has received relatively little attention from empiricists in comparison with the various forms of reciprocity and punishment that have been suggested to function as proximate mechanisms allowing the maintenance of cooperation”
There is something about the Abrahamic faiths that is different. The first clue to this is that the youngest of the Semitic faiths, Islam and Christianity, have the most adherents. There are some qualities to these religions that are common to them and must have been established early in their evolution. What were these qualities that prevented them from being engulfed by other belief systems, during their conquest of the world? What gave Christianity and Islam the ability to co-opt many of the traditional practices and beliefs of local populations, as their own religious memes raced through the human species?
The Roman polytheists were a diversely invested group of worshipers. We know what hit them – Christianity! Somewhere along the line, religions evolved a virulent strain that attacked other religions and competed violently for ‘belief space’. The monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam are the most virulent of the lot, condemning the Gods of other belief systems and denouncing the followers of these other religions. There is no room in Christianity and Islam for tolerance of the kind that Tharoor extols Hinduism for. You either believe in them completely, rejecting every other God, or you are a heathen doomed to the fires of hell.
This is not lost on the adherents of Hinduism. Given these historical facts, the Hindu extremists are aware that without taking a stance against these virulent forms of religion, their own traditions are left defenseless and under attack.
You will notice that I am not making any value judgments about these different belief systems or their virulence. I am just stating facts that influence human social behaviors such as inter-group competition. These well respected scientific concepts are completely ignored by influential Indian intellectuals and policy makers like Shashi Tharoor. Without addressing these objectively observable and quantifiable phenomena, Tharoor’s approach to understanding and dealing with the problem of communal conflict in India is grossly inadequate.
The Real Story:
My wider criticism of Tharoor and many of the other prominent Indian intellectuals is that they are missing the greater human story that science has made available to us. Take for example the case that Tharoor makes against those Hindus who attack Christians as being non-Indians. He brings up the fact that many Indian Christians have served our country and that there were Christians in India before the Europeans ever colonized us. These criticisms may have a temporary emotional appeal but in the long run they only serve to reinforce the divisions between the different religious groups. More importantly, they miss telling the real story.
All Indian Hindus have ancestors who were not Hindu. In fact, every human-being on earth had ancestors who subscribed to now-extinct religions. This is a particularly poignant fact for Hindu Nationalists. The current scientific consensus is that many of the fundamental tenets of Hinduism were invented by people outside of India. Archeological and linguistic evidence point to the fact that the ancestral languages to the Indo-European group of languages were most likely spoken by a group of people who lived over 4000 years ago in what is modern day Turkmenistan. The work of Russian archeologist Viktor Sarianidi has helped uncover many elements of these people’s lives, some of which are described in the oldest of the Vedas, the Rig Veda. A process of acculturation, starting around the time of the decline of the Indus Valley civilization and leading up to the settlement of the Gangetic plains, is considered the most plausible explanation of the spread of these Central Asian cultures into India. Once there, it is likely that these non-native beliefs were modified by the local beliefs already present in India. There is significant linguistic evidence that the Indo-Aryan languages underwent a “shift” as they were adopted and modified by native Dravidic speakers. (Just to be clear, I am not endorsing the Aryan Invasion Theory here; the theory that there was an actual invasion into India by a different race of people who then became the higher priestly castes is very controversial and the limited molecular genetic data available to test this theory is hotly debated. I am only talking about the acculturation of Indic peoples by the language and rituals of the Central Asian people who had migrated south and were in close proximity.)
Think about the implications of this fact for a bit. Hinduism is in part a “foreign religion” to India. This is something that, if made common knowledge, has the ability to dissipate much of the neo-Hindu obsession with religious nationalism. More importantly, it has the ability to actually enlighten the masses.
The Benefits of Rational Inquiry:
Adopting a naturalistic approach to the problems of communalism has many long term benefits that myopic, post-modernist strategies such as Tharoor’s cannot provide. For instance, popularizing the scientifically established “Out Of Africa” theory of human history is conducive to establishing a sense of universal human-hood that no other universal “truth” can attain. I have written about the advantageous of such an approach here. Briefly, such an unbiased view of human history has the potential to make us understand the superficiality of constructs such as race, religion and even culture, and show us the wonderful common heritage that we all share.
In presenting irrational and highly subjective ideals as solutions to the problem of increased conflict between religious groups, Shashi Tharoor and others are contributing to the status quo. There is no respite from the current situation unless naturalistic reality becomes popular in India over the next few decades. The key to this is education. A top-down intellectual plea for tolerance, in the face of competition for supremacy of group-specific belief systems, is inferior to a system that encourages a real understanding into the silliness of such group-centric beliefs in general. This real understanding comes from a bottom-up approach, using education to create a fact-based awareness of our true human condition.
As communities become more connected by technology, the likelihood of conflicts between those opposed to each other based on cultural constructs only gains in momentum. All the good intentions of intellectuals cannot address the problem of communal violence in India. The ideals of religious tolerance and pluralism, standard arguments proposed by the secular majority, only go to reinforce the pacifist sentiments of those individuals in society who are intrinsically not of a conflict-driven nature. There will always be individuals to whom the innate competitiveness ingrained in our species by the forces of natural selection will override these platitudes offered by the elites. These individuals will be more receptive to the unifying emotions of brotherhood that a reason-based understanding of our common past can induce in people. I conclude by stating that in order to rid India of communal conflict, we must popularize our wonderful human heritage through education and rational thinking, rather than continue to divide people based on such absurd belief systems as irrational religious ideology.
* Update: After some communication with Meera Nanda, I have decided that I had previously understated the capacity for group-centric violence that Hinduism can evoke. I may have also overstated the the influence of cultures from outside India in Hinduism as it is now practiced. It seems likely that it was the coming together of these outside and native influences, and their further evolution within India, that led to Hinduism as we know it. The central thesis, however, remain unaltered.